From the pattern of Moses and the Old Testament priests to the teaching ministry of Jesus, biblical exposition has a long track record in redemptive history. In the New Testament, the citation and explanation of Scripture (i.e., biblical exposition) continued. And this is most evident in Acts and Hebrews, the two books we will focus on here.
The Expositional Acts of the Apostles
In Acts, Luke gives a selection of exemplary sermons by Peter (Acts 3-4), Stephen (Acts 7), and Paul (Acts 13-14, 17). In each, the Spirit-filled preachers appeal to the Old Testament, retell the history of Israel, and explain how Jesus Christ fulfills God’s patterns, promises, and prophecies.
For instance, in Acts 13:15 Paul and Barnabas are invited to give a word of exhortation (a sermon?) “after reading from the Law and the Prophets.” It is easy to see the pattern of exposition here: read the word, preach about the same word. Paul paid attention to his audience, but he faithfully proclaimed God’s Word according to the pattern of sound words that was found in the Old Testament.
Of course, from the terse details in Acts, we cannot replicate the form of the apostle’s exposition, but we can see their commitment to explaining the Old Testament Scriptures: They showed how the Old Testament related to Jesus, and called their audiences to repent and believe.
Moreover, when Paul handed off his ministry to the Ephesians elders, he said to them, “Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God” (vv. 26-27). His reference to blood harkens back to the watchman’s role in Ezekiel (ch. 3, 33). He likens the preacher’s task of protecting the flock to the watchman’s task of warning the city, and the way he tells the Ephesians elders to guard the flock is by means of teaching the whole counsel of Scripture.
Therefore, from the book of Acts, we find a flexible pattern of exposition intended to proclaim Christ from all the Scriptures. Still, there is one more place in the New Testament that demonstrates the vitality of expositional preaching—the letter to the Hebrews, or should we say the sermon to the Hebrews?
Hebrews: An Expositional Sermon
While we read Hebrews today as a letter, it has every indication that this epistle was a sermon first. On that point Dennis Johnson observes a number of sermonic features ( Him We Proclaim: Preaching Christ from All the Scriptures, 167–78):
- The book closes with the words, “my word of exhortation,” which in other contexts including Acts 13 indicate a sermon;
- Hebrews regularly exalts in God’s spoken word (1:1-2; 2:1-4; 12:25-29);
- the Scripture citations are introduced as words spoken, not just written (3:7, 15; 5:6; 10:15);
- the author of Hebrews twice abbreviates his comments in order shorten his sermon (9:5; 11:32);
- unlike other letters that begin with doctrine and transition to application, Hebrews unites exposition and application, such that in each section of the sermon there is biblical quotation, explanation, and exhortation;
- there is a discernible outline to the sermon—Jesus is better than angels (1:4-2:28); better than Moses (3:1-4:13); better than Aaron (4:14-7:28); better than old covenant sacrifices (8:1-10:31); better than the patriarchs (10:32-12:17); better than Moses as the mediator of worship (12:18-29);
- the length of Hebrews read aloud totals about 55 minutes, which is in the ballpark for a sermon.
In this outline, we can see how Hebrews is a series of biblical expositions. Specifically, the author cites, explains, coordinates, and applies Psalm 8:4-6 (Hebrews 2), Psalm 95:7-11 (Hebrews 3-4); Psalm 110:1, 4 (Hebrews 5–7); Jeremiah 31:31-34 (Hebrews 8–10); Habakkuk 2:2–4 (Hebrews 10–11); Exodus 19:16-23 (Hebrews 12). By citing, explaining, and applying these six passages, the author models a kind of biblical exposition that is loaded with Scripture, well-illustrated, and filled with application. For this reason, Hebrews serves as conclusive argument for expositional preaching.
The Pastoral Epistles
Still, there is more we can say.. God’s word not only models exposition; it also commands it. If we take seriously the words of Paul to Timothy as words of instruction for the church, we find Paul actually commanding pastors to preach expositionally.
Here’s what I mean. In his first letter to Timothy Paul writes,
Command and teach these things. Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers. (1 Tim 4:11–16)
Stressing Timothy’s role of teaching (mentioned three time, plus “commanding” and “exhortation”), Paul tells his son in the faith: “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching.” Like the priests of old (who functioned as pastors in their own right), Paul instructs Timothy to read the Scripture and teach the Scripture with exhortation. In short, to repulse the false teachers in the Ephesian church, Timothy is to herald the truth of the gospel, trusting that the Word will sufficiently equip the saints, expose the wolves, and build up the church.
A Final Plea for Expositional Preaching
The same is true today. Pastors do not build true churches by managerial excellence, neither do they comfort souls with modern psychology. Rather, pastors are to lead the flock of God to read the Scriptures, understand the Scriptures, and apply the Scriptures.
When pastors are faithful in that “Word work,” churches will grow and be built up in the doctrines of the faith. When they fail to do that, they will lead their churches astray, or at least, they will not protect the flock from the popular but false ideologies of our day.
In many churches and traditions, expositional preaching has been out of fashion for too long. Only by returning to it, however, will the word of God be given room to purify the church, sanctify the saints, and convert the lost.
May God be pleased to give us ears to hear the whole counsel of God word preached and heard from faithful expositors of God’s word.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds